NORTH FORK — For 19 years, the students at North Fork Elementary School have been digging in the dirt and enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor as they work and play in what has grown to a nearly one-acre garden.
Now, with a $5,900 gift from the Oakhurst Sierra Sunrise Rotary, they will be able to invest even more in the fresh fruits and vegetables that fill their school’s salad bar and provide healthy snacks for some 255 students in North Fork, and hundreds more across the Chawankee School District.
On Friday, Nov. 3, members of the Rotary presented the hefty check to the North Fork School Garden’s “master farmer,” Hansel Kern, and school principal Gayle Fain.
Hansel has made the school garden his passion for nearly two decades. Through the hard work of Hansel’s kids Becky and Aaron, and help from the nearly 500 WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who have been part of the Kern Family Farm over the last nine years, the garden has bloomed and grown into a major part of the kids’ educational experience and the school’s culture.
“I feel it’s really important that these kids have an appreciation for where their food comes from,” says Hansel.
Every Friday, the kids in each class, from kindergarten to 8th grade, work for 30 minutes in the garden. Even during the winter months, there is still much to be done.
There are fruit trees, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and basil, and tall rows of corn. There is a greenhouse filled with concrete beds where salad greens are grown. There are beautiful arbors covered with four different varieties of grapes, and rows of covered beds, newly planted with the winter crop of carrots.
All the terraces were built by the kids, using wheelbarrows to transport the soil, and occasionally, each other.
There are also compost piles where scraps from the kitchen are returned to the earth, completing the cycle. The piles are stirred and mixed and when the new, rich soil is ready, it is used to amend the beds and create new terraces as the garden grows.
A new arbor for a fresh crop of blackberries is in the works, and flowering bulbs have just been dug up for the winter from their tubs along the fence. There is a brightly painted tool shed, and even an outdoor sink.
Hansel gives all the credit for the idea to 2nd grade teacher Rodney York.
“He brought his goats to school, and asked me to bring mine, and then had the idea for a garden,” says Hansel. “We started with a few garden beds, then it got built out quite a bit when Becky made it her senior project, and now it has really turned into a farm. The kids are out here digging and just having a ball.”
As anyone who grows a garden in the mountains is well aware, forest denizens will munch away all your hard work without the proper deterrent. The donation from the Rotarians will go a long way toward building a fence that will keep the deer from helping themselves to the bounty. Though that likely won’t stop the two-legged harvesters who made off with all the blackberries last summer.
Hansel says the current fence was built with scraps of this and that from his farm. The new fence will be built with local materials from Box Feed.
He plans for a 7-foot fence with field wire, and three strands of woven wire on the top. The kids will weave bamboo and interesting pieces of wood through the top three strands, creating beautiful artwork around the perimeter.
Principal Gayle Fain says that art is a part of every project they do at the school, which has helped to foster some very good artists among the student body.
Last Friday morning, all the kids gathered in the cafeteria for a rousing chorus of “Dirt Made My Lunch” before being presented with the very large check from the Rotarians. The students were so excited, it actually sounded more like a rock concert than an assembly to celebrate a garden!
Tim Madden, Acting President of the Sierra Sunrise Rotary, says they have also donated $4,000 to the Wasuma School garden. The funds are raised through special events like the Cajun Fest in the spring, and the Dale Miller Memorial Golf Tournament in the fall.
“This is the largest donation we’ve ever received – by far!” says Hansel.
Produce and other items from the Kern Family Farm are available to the public at The Gnarly Carrot in downtown North Fork. This wonderful market is run by Becky Kern and is open seven days a week. For more information, call 559-877-8400.